Big Blue Madness has come and gone. Kentucky fans seen the new guys, and seen the returners. It's effortless to move on to the idea that this team has all the pieces it takes to be successful. There are seven high school All-Americans of one sort or another on the 2011-12 Wildcats, and everyone else is talented in their own right.
This part of the preview will look at the Wildcats position by position and suggest a possible starting lineup. Keep in mind, this is just my opinion on things, and its certainly possible Coach Cal will have a different opinion, and his is the only one that counts. Also, we'll likely see several starting lineups early in the season, much as we did last year. The second part will examine the schedule.
Starter: Marquis Teague
Freshman Marquis Teague is the only true point guard on the team, at least for the first half of the season. Teague is not John Wall, nor Brandon Knight, nor Derrick Rose. He has traits in common with all of them, though. Teague is a big-strong player for a point guard at 6'2", 189#. He is more of distributor and a rim-attacker than a perimeter guard like Brandon Knight was. Teague is probably not as fast as either Knight or Wall, but he is probably more athletic overall than Knight was, and more powerful than any of the four except Rose. He is a good, but not great, shooter from the perimeter. What sets him apart his ability to get past his defender and get to the rim.
Teague should be a capable defender at this level.
Back up: Doron Lamb
Much as he did for Brandon Knight last year,will be the go-to player to initiate the offense when Teague is out. We'll talk more about Lamb in the shooting guard section.
Back up: Twany Beckham
Twany Beckham is a transfer from Mississippi St. who played his high school basketball at Louisville Ballard. Beckham considers himself a pass-first point guard, and likes to attack the rim when he needs to score, but prefers to pass the ball. Beckham is a very big point guard at 6'5" and 205#. With size like that, he'll be a handful for opposing point guards when it comes to defending him off the bounce. Beckham is a poor shooter from the perimeter, so don't look for him to put up many from outside.
Beckham is a proven defender at the NCAA level and should be very comfortable playing smaller guards, but he can also switch off to the 2 if needed because of his great size.
Back up: Jarrod Polson
Polson saw spot duty at the point guard last year and figures to see some this year as well, particularly in the first half of the season while Beckham is still serving his residence. Polson has decent size for a point guard at 6'2" and 185#, and he is also a very good shooter and solid ballhandler. He lacks the explosiveness and quickness with the ball in his hands to be comfortable attacking the rim in the DDM, but he can be very effective in a set offense or as a spot-up shooter.
Defensively, Polson is a step slower than most of his competition, although he is a very intelligent player who knows how to minimize that disadvantage.
Starter: Doron Lamb
We all remember Doron Lamb from last year, but in case you've forgotten, he made 48.6% of his 3-point shots. Lamb is a good passer and good ballhandler, but not much of a "beat you off the dribble" guy. Lamb prefers to get the ball off rotation, and either shoot the open three or attack 5 feet or so inside the arc with his midrange floaters and jumpers. Lamb is a very dangerous shooter spotting up, and can hit floaters and short jumpers with ease for those too worried about leaving him open. Lamb has decent size for an NCAA shooting guard at 6'4", 210#
Doron Lamb was an adequate defender last year, but that was the weakest part of his game. He'll need to step that up this year.
Backup: Darius Miller
Darius Miller is a wing forward who can also play a big shooting guard. We'll talk more about him in the wing forward section.
Backup: Stacey Poole
Stacey Poole is a very talented kid who is trying to find some playing time on this team. Poole has been working hard on getting his jumpshot consistent, and by looking at him during Big Blue Madness, has spend quite a bit of time getting stronger as well. Poole is a physical slasher who has significantly improved his explosiveness this year. He Has good size for the position at 6'4" 200#, and looks to have developed his game to a significant degree in the off season.
Poole should be a capable defender, but he has played too little time for us to really know.
Starter: Darius Miller
As the starter at wing forward last year, Darius Miller is likely the favorite to start again this year, especially considering that he is the team's only senior. At 6'7" and 235#, Miller is a very powerful wing forward and can even play some power forward if necessary. He has improved his post-up game quite a bit over the years, but where he is most deadly is spot-up 3-point shooting. Miller has improved his shooting form so much that there is almost no daylight between him and Doron Lamb in that area.
Miller is an extremely versatile player who can easily play three spots -- wing forward, power forward, and shooting guard. At shooting guard, he is a major mismatch for every opponent on the schedule. He has improved every facet of his game every year he has been here, and figures to be a major force his senior season despite all the hype given the freshmen. Miller can defend his position very well at the Division I level.
Co-starter: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
I list Kidd-Gilchrist as a co-starter because he will unquestionably play starter's minutes. Kidd-Gilchrist is a slashing, athletic, physical player who, like Miller, is extremely versatile. At 6'7" and 232#, Kid-Gilchrist is very similar to Miller in size, but their skill set is a little different. Kidd-Gilchrist is a serviceable perimeter shooter, but his forte is slashing to the hoop and finishing from a variety of angles. Miller rarely makes slashing plays, and is more deliberate where Kidd-Glichrist is dynamic. It is very easy to slide Miller over to the shooting guard or Kidd-Gilchrist to the power forward during the game, giving an entirely different offensive look.
Kidd-Gilchrist is an outstanding, ball-hawking and physical defender, and transitioning to Division I should not be difficult for him defensively.
You would think Davis would not be here, but he is actually a prototypical wing forward for the NBA. It's easy to see Calipari going to a big lineup of Davis, Jones, and Vargas situationally. His former life as an off guard gives him the ballhandling and shooting skills to slide into this spot. More on Davis later.
Backup: Terrence Jones
Ah, flexibility, there is just nothing like it. Terrence Jones can easily slide into the small forward position if the situation calls for size at that spot, or a big lineup in which Davis is in foul trouble or has a better matchup at the 4. Jones is a terrific ballhandler and passer for his size. More on Jones in the next segment.
[Editor's note: I am combining these positions out of deference to the reality that we have no true centers on the team]
Starter: Terrence Jones
In all of college basketball, there is perhaps no player better made to serve in this position. Jones has not only the size at 6'9" and 252# to play this position with anybody, but terrific skill at ballhandling, passing, and shooting to go along with it. Jones can post or slash to the basket, shoot the three, and play any sort of offense you can diagram from the high-low to the DDM. In Kentucky's system, he is the perfect power forward.
Jones is an excellent defender and led the team in blocks last year. He should be even better this year.
Starter: Anthony Davis
Davis will be playing a hybrid position with elements of the power forward, center, and small forward rolled into one. Jones will most likely spend time at the inside low-block position in a DDM set, but it's easy to see him switching out with Davis at any time. Davis and Jones have similar skill sets in very different bodies, but Davis' length makes him unique in a defensive role, in that he will challenge every shot near him and block a great many.
Offensively, he is a matchup nightmare. He has a similar game and body type to Kevin Durrant, but he handles the ball much better than Durrant did and is a far superior shot blocker. Davis also has a better inside the paint game than Durrant, but lacks the lightning-quick trigger and crazy range of the Oklahoma City Thunder star.
Backup: Kyle Wiltjer
Wiltjer is another versatile player who is big enough for duty at five spot at 6'9" and 239#, but will probably spend most of his time in more of a power forward role. Wiltjer has terrific hands and is a deadly perimeter shooter, but doesn't have the kind of handle it takes yet to spot in at the wing forward.
Defensively, Wiltjer is a work in progress. He needs to put on more weight and learn how to defend the post in Division I. Wiltjer's defense will likely define how much playing time he gets.
Backup: Eloy Vargas
When Vargas came to Florida, he was known more as a power forward type than a center. Last year, Coach Cal had Vargas exclusively inside the paint, and I expect that's where he will spend most of his time this year. Vargas actually has good hands and a good touch, but last year he lacked upper body strength and the explosiveness to finish at the rim in traffic. Vargas will probably see more time this year than last on the court if he has improved a bit, but he will definitely be bringing up the rear in minutes among this group.
Defensively, Vargas has not been great. He has great size at 6'10" and 244#, but Vargas is a bit slow afoot and struggles with more explosive players. Hopefully, he will improve that area significantly this year, and like Wiltjer, his ability to defend his position will dictate his playing time to a great degree.
Backup: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist
Kidd-Gilchrist can also serve time in the power forward spot, although he is too small and light to be effective as a center. Most of his time will be spent at the three, but he has played the four in high school and is capable of playing it in college with his size, athleticism and ability to finish at the rim.
Backup: Darius Miller
Miller probably won't see much time in this spot, but he played it some last year and is a difficult matchup against power forwards. With his ability to post up and good size and strength, he won't see any time at center with this group, but could see spot minutes at the four as well as major minutes at the two and three.
This is perhaps the most versatile group of players ever to take the floor at Kentucky. With the combination of size, ballhandling and shooting, many players can serve in multiple positions as the situation demands and create mismatches that Kentucky can exploit, both on defense and offense.
No other team in the top tier of college basketball has this kind of flexibility built into their team, and that is a huge and underrated advantage, particularly when players inevitably get into foul trouble. It allows Kentucky to do more with fewer players, and that has been a hallmark of Calipari for the two years he has been at UK.
Make no mistake, this group will contend for the big prize. In part two of this series, we'll look at the schedule the Wildcats will have to manage to get that opportunity.